The practice of diplomacy in the virtual space is geared towards amplifying foreign policy drives and messages and forms a vital and dynamic branch of strategic communication. Now, more than ever before, we are faced with the inexorable certainty of a digital future – a future that has already begun. As COVID-19 thrusts the world’s population into their homes and compels multiple operations and processes to move online, diplomatic engagements too must be primed to fit the order and arrangement of altered circumstances. The use of the internet offers real time dissemination and exchanges in a relatively informal setting, at low financial costs and aims at shrinking the space between foreign publics and stakeholders on the one hand and foreign policy practices and practitioners on the other.
Digital diplomacy falls under the broader spectrum of public diplomacy, the roots of which can be traced to the extensive use of radio communications by both the Axis and the Allied powers during WWII. Interestingly, the digitization of diplomacy however is believed to have happened earlier when foreign ministries first began the use of telegraph services in the 19th century. In the contemporary context, digital diplomacy has been practiced primarily through social media since the innovation of an online world, the arrival of new information communication technologies and the rapid popularity of the internet.
Today, diplomats and government representatives routinely engage in both pleasantries as well as repartee on Twitter in what is now popularly known as Twiplomacy or Twitter Diplomacy. Twiplomacy is direct, often unencumbered and enables wider reach of foreign policies than traditional channels. Such online engagement can also be converted to a substantial support for foreign policies and/or agendas. It is at times assumed that Twiplomacy has shaken traditional preferences for confidentiality, hierarchy, instrumentality and top-down decision making of foreign affairs departments favouring instead the use of crisp language, visual storytelling, emotional framing, algorithmic navigation, and so on. This is an incorrect conjecture as the traditional modus operandi of foreign interaction remains equally pertinent today. What Twiplomacy has done is added a supplementary avenue of diplomatic exchange which is in keeping with contemporary circumstances.
As diplomatic exchanges thrive on Twitter and other social media platforms, the question is whether it is merely the diplomatic conversation which has moved online or whether there is more to the scope of diplomatic engagement employing digital tools in the virtual space. While the latter has been deliberated by technology stakeholders and to an extent by policy makers, its practice is yet to see the kind of flurry that is observed on Twitter almost on a daily basis. This is where the use of 5G systems, artificial intelligence, wearable technology and the applications of big data come in. Aggregation of big data can assist in the identification of disinformation campaigns while collating geospatial and sensor data for more objective, fact-based information gathering which in turn would aid the core component of diplomacy – negotiation. While the use of some of these technologies is mired in controversy, all of these will eventually find application across sectors and diplomacy too will not be an outlier.
Greater use of digital tools can assist diplomacy in broad ways. First, it ensures a quick response time. Digital tools facilitate diplomatic engagement to happen in real time and in so doing helps ease communication as well as make way for effective action in times of urgency or crisis. Second, it assists in resource mobilization in terms negotiations and building of alliances, primarily by eliminating constraints of distance and time. Third, it helps pave the way for gaining a wider understanding of public emotions and perceptions which can at times facilitate more updated policy approaches and methods of implementation.
This brings us to the dividing line between policy outreach which is designed to inform, assist, facilitate and where applicable, ameliorate global relations and the utilization of sharp power which is aimed at exerting disproportionate levels of influence to censor, manipulate and falsify information for hostile purposes. The virtual space, like many other forms of technology, faces the dual-use challenge i.e., it can serve both constructive purposes and also disruptive ones. For foreign policy this poses a considerable challenge as governments often find themselves in the middle of misinformation and disinformation campaigns which are difficult to debunk and deflate given the pace and volume of the reach that virtual networks offer. Nonetheless, this is a challenge that governments across the world must learn to tackle because the medium and the technology will not go away but rather diversify and proliferate.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already and will probably continue to suspend or reorganize most activities for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously however, engagements and functioning across the world must persist and diplomatic outreach forms a vital component of pooling in efforts to mitigate the health crisis. This involves the dissemination of information, transfers of key supplies, provisioning for the inevitable uncertainties of challenges post the pandemic and reorganizing institutions to better apprehend future exigencies. Bound by limitations on travel, world leaders are responding by convening on virtual platforms for multilateral summits like the G20 and SAARC. India’s first ever virtual bilateral summit is being planned with Australia. COVID-19 demands a fast forward from deliberations to action and foreign ministries around the world need to harness the advantages of cost and geographical inconsequence to effectively respond to the global crisis at hand and also in the process enable digitisation of diplomatic processes which can continue to be in practice in the post-Covid world.
A book on Nepal’s diplomatic story of co-existence
Recent diplomatic friction between Nepal and India over the new Nepali map including India-controlled territories of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura encouraged me to go though some Indian perspectives on the Nepal’s diplomacy.
For this, I revisited the book titled ‘FOREIGN POLICY OF NEPAL’ authored by Indian professor SD Muni. This PHD-thesis-cum-book published in 1973 gives some insights on Nepal’s diplomatic developments as an oldest sovereign country in the South Asia.
However, this book has some visible bias towards Nepal. For example, it ranks Nepal not as a diplomatic ‘power’ but only as a ‘mini power’. The author has given instances of Nepal’s military assistance proving instrumental to quell mutinies both in times of British India in 1857 and independent India in 1948. Nevertheless, he does not want to term Nepal as a diplomatic ‘power’ even in this era of peaceful diplomacy with soft powers. Still, in the chapter called ‘conclusion’, he concludes, ‘Nepal’s geographical location between India and China was also an asset since it placed the kingdom in a strategic position.’
Having read Nepal’s foreign policy perspective from an Indian angle of professor Muni, I came across the book titled ‘India meets China in Nepal’. Written by Girilal Jain, the editor of India’s top English daily The Times of India from 1978-1988, I got this book by the daughter of the author, Sandhya Jain. Jain, also a noted historian of India, generously mailed me the original PDF of this book.
Girilal Jain had close rapports with influential figures of Nepal including the then Prime Minister Tanka Prashad Acharya when he started working on this book from 1956-1957. He said he started working on this volume just after Nepal signed treaties on Tibet and economic assistance with northern neighbor China to which ‘many Indians were alarmed by this shift in Nepal’s foreign policy in favor of communist China.”
Jain has written this book with factual logics and interpretation of Nepali narration. Together with background and important treaties of Nepal and China, Nepal and India, this books includes chapters like ‘ end of Rana rule’, ‘experiment of democracy’, ‘the crisis deepens’, ‘first general elections’, ‘Indo-Nepalese relations’, ‘consequences of Tibet’.
In all of these chapters, Jain gives crystal clear facts of Nepal’s political, diplomatic and democratic practices. He has not diluted these facts with his unproven individual interpretations like most of the contemporary Indian journalists and intellectuals do.
The most important and must-read chapter is ‘Nepalese version of co-existence.’ Unlike, Indian state establishment and its sympathizers, Jain has not provoked Nepal’s diplomatic and economic engagements with northern neighbor China. He has made close observation of the premierships of Tanka Prashad Acharya and Dr. K.I. Singh. Acharya, Jian writes, was accused of being pro-China. On the other hand, Acharya’s successor Singh was vocally pro-India.
Singh even officially stood behind India in Kashmir conflict on 3 August 1957 saying, ”we shall support India on the issue over the Kashmir issue. There is no doubt about it. Kashmir was and is a part of India and the people of Kashmir desire live with the Indian union.”
This vocal pro-Indian stand of Nepal on the Kashmir issue is first and last. Sigh could not prolong his stay at Singhadurbar more than 110 days owing to this pro-India stand by diplomatically neutral Nepal. King Mahendra sacked him.
The author also pictures the then power games played by the then two opposing superpowers- USA and USSR. He justified this narration by saying, ”Soviet Government has also entered the race for winning over Nepal to its side. The Soviet Embassy has already been set up in Kathmandu; the American Embassy has already been opened because the US cannot allow itself to be beaten by Russian in this competition for influence in Nepal. Thus, Nepal has been drawn into the vertex of the cold war.”
This book gives every detailing of Nepal’s diplomatic dealing with its giant neighbor India and China ,to which it shares long borders of around 1800 and 1414 kilometer respectively, along with its neutrality towards the global diplomatic power plays exercised by the then world superpowers of US and USSR.
Despite being a well-versed book, the author, however, has made some wrong prediction and interpretation on Nepal’s communist parties. ”Should the strength of the Communist Party of grow in India, particularly in the bordering states of West Bengal, Bihar and U.P., Nepal will feel its impacts,” argues the author, ”If communism is finally routed in India, its fate will be sealed in Nepal as well.”
At a time when the 34-year-old communist-run state state of West Bengal has been ousted in bordering India, Nepal has seen the most powerful communist government in Nepali history with close to two-thirds of seats in the parliament and six out of seven state governments, author’s narration has come untrue.
Many global political pundits are picturing a new version of cold war between China and USA in the post-pandemic world. The ongoing border tensions between immediate neighbors of India and China are also at play. At this critical juncture, Nepal needs to stay stronger on its neutrality more than ever. The book ‘India meets China in Nepal’ published in 1959 can be a brief reminder of Nepal’s deeds towards this end.
The theatrics before the Quad Meeting
Authors: Mozammil Ahmad and Sruthi V S*
According to a Hindustan Times report, an anonymous senior US state department official has dismissed the talk for formalizing the Quad ahead of the ministerial Quad meeting to be held in Tokyo on 6th October.
The Quad or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is the informal forum between the US, Japan, Australia and India. Its origin goes back to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. The adjunct grouping of US, India, Japan and Australia as the ‘Tsunami Core Group’ was formed to respond to tsunami. The concept of a “Quadrilateral Initiative” as a strategic alliance was first proposed as a dialogue in 2007. It was proposed by the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo to form a multilateral dialogue with Japan, the United States and Australia but it fell in 2008. Then, in 2017, the quad was revived and it began convening on a semi-regular basis.
US and the Quad
The US interest in Quad began when it found itself in a strategic competition with China. The US has been rethinking its stance against China before the coronavirus outbreak. The 2017 National Security Strategy of the Trump administration asserted that China seeks to challenge America’s power and influence. Meanwhile the 2018 National Defence Strategy termed Beijing as the “strategic competitor.” China expanded its international influence through its economy and the BRI to challenge the existing world order. However, during the pandemic, the US-China tensions have accelerated. This led the US to explore alliances in the Indo-Pacific region.
The first instance of US interest in the Quad began in March 2020 when the US initiated a weekly online meeting between Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Beigun and his counterparts in India, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand to discuss and exchange views on how to deal with the pandemic. This initiative of the US is more than just exchange views, it also became a coalition of countries with similar views on China. The core countries of the Quad – India, Japan, Australia, are facing their respective security challenges posed by China forming a ”Quad Plus”.
Therefore, the upcoming ministerial Quad meeting holds strategic importance for the US to form a counter to China’s posture under President Xi Jinping.
Then why is the US not eager to formalize the Quad?
In international relations, there is no selflessness. Every move must extract all possible gains. I propose the consideration of the following three factors for the recent US stance-
The US economy has plunged 31.4% for the April-June quarter. Economists expect the US GDP to fall even more, making it the first time it has decreased since the financial crisis of 2008. Gregory Daco, the chief US economist at Oxford Economics has said, “With economic momentum cooling, fiscal stimulus expiring, flu season approaching and election uncertainty rising, the main question is how strong the labor market will be going into the fourth quarter.” The economic condition of the US is not such to fully commit and invest in a multilateral alliance.
US Presidential Election
The October 6 meeting is being held when the US Presidential election is only a month away. There is an ongoing aggressive campaign battle between Donald Trump and Joe Biden for the Presidential election. Both Democrats and Republicans are wooing American-Indian community towards their side. While Democrats project Kamala Harris as a multiracial VP candidate, the Republicans are highlighting Trump-Modi friendship to consolidate support for their respective parties.
The Hindustan Times report mentions that “human rights organisation Amnesty International’s decision to shut down its India operations had “received attention at the highest levels” of the Trump administration and it was being followed “very, very closely” by members of US congress.”
This is not yet an official statement of the US State Department. With the reportage in the Indian English media and clear indication towards a domestic event of India, it could be seen as a pressure tactic on the Indian government. With the Trump campaign’s reliance on friendship with Modi, this could be a subtle way of asking the Modi government to appreciate the friendship. Hence, increasing Trump’s appeal to the American-Indian community.
This is also a typical strategic way to use the soft power of media to influence diplomacy. Maybe U.S wished to propose a few trade deals favourable for them and reports of lack of keenness of U.S to formalize quad may influence other countries to agree to the demands of U.S and appease it.
At a U.S-India Strategic Partnership Forum in August, when asked about the attempts to formalize the Quad Plus, the US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun remarked that ”so as long as we keep the purpose right and as long as we keep the ambitions checked to start with a very strong set of members, I think it’s worth exploring an (inaudible) like that, although it only will happen if the other countries are as committed as the United States.”
The new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suge spoke to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping last week where both the leaders agreed to hold summits and other high-level meetings to cooperate in bilateral, regional and international issues. The goodwill conversation is considered as the improvement for China-Japan relations.
The US could be questioning the commitment of the fellow members of the Quad, and refraining from formalizing it. The recent statement has also mentioned that, “America wanted to strengthen existing regional architectures, not create new ones.”
The Quad plus meeting held on 6th October reflected a continuation of their past style of cooperation. The four ministers agreed to convene regular meetings with the next meeting scheduled for next year. For now, the Quad is considered symbolic, though the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made remarks to potentially institutionalize Quad. However, much is happening in the world, with the global pandemic, economic slowdown faced by many countries and the US Presidential election, to suggest the future course of the Quad.
*Sruthi V S– Sruthi is a Consultant with Qrius (formerly The Indian Economist). She has previously taught as Assistant Professor in Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Delhi, India. Her research interest includes art, culture, world, media, politics.
Bhutan – India: A multi- dimensional relationship. interview with H.E. Amb. Ruchira Kamboj
India and Bhutan have shared an interesting relationship for a very long time. They are geopolitical neighbours, trade partners and friends. In this conversation with Modern Diplomacy, Her Excellency Ambassador Ruchira Kamboj, Ambassador of India to Bhutan sheds more light on the India Bhutan relationship and her work in the Indian Foreign Services.
When did you decide that you wanted to join the foreign services? Tell us more about your journey.
That was quite early I would say – while in school. I enjoyed the pursuit of, and discussions on international relations, and greatly looked forward to actual practice! I guess I was fortunate and quite blessed that this aspiration came true.
The relations between India and Bhutan have been historically significant and more so now when the former’s relations with few other neighbours seem to be muffled with confusion and disturbances. What do you believe will strengthen India – Bhutan’s bond even more?
Bhutan and India are bound together by ties of geography, history, culture, spiritual traditions and centuries old people-to-people interactions.
The special friendship has not only benefited our two nations, it has also created an example for the whole world, an epitome of two nations, of two different sizes, living together for collective growth, bound by an unparalleled friendship.
Both Bhutan and India have young populations. Both Bhutan and India are rapidly transforming societies. A greater focus on youth-centric activities both sides through enhanced exchanges and connectivities, in particular in those sectors where India brings unique strengths to the table, such as IT, STEM, Start-Ups, could potentially be hugely beneficial for further growth and progress. As one tiny example, this year itself, eight Bhutanese students have entered our IITs against their chosen Masters’ Programmes.
This ties in with His Majesty’s vision and focus on STEM, where technology is rapidly transforming the world around us, and where the pace of scientific advancement is relentless in its pursuit towards creation.
What other plans and bilateral agreements can we foresee other than energy (hydroelectric) and tourism that will be a boon for both the South Asian countries?
The relationship between Bhutan and India today is multi- dimensional encompassing diverse sectors, not being limited to the traditional sectors but opening up to new and emerging spaces such as financial technology cooperation, IT, Start-Ups and Space Science and Technology, for mutually beneficial growth and cooperation.
I am pleased to share and following the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Bhutan in 2019, action has matched talk, and we are well into implementing much of what was envisaged during this memorable visit, reflective of our commitment to advancing the economic and infrastructural development of Bhutan, per the priorities and wishes of the Government and the people of Bhutan.
Speaking of energy diplomacy, what are your personal views on the environment and climate change? What lessons can the world learn from Bhutan’s carbon-negative approach?
There are no two views that the world needs to think and act green, to support sustainable growth. India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embarked upon a massive upward trajectory as we seek to harness solar and wind energy to power our future. The International Solar Alliance is one example -since 2015, this 87 signatory-alliance is propelling Earth to a low-carbon growth path. Similarly, the Coalition for Disaster-Resilient Infrastructure aims at a climate-change and disaster-resilient future for all.
As for Bhutan, you are truly an example to the world, having envisioned the “requirement” to be green in your country’s constitution, and being practically the world’s only carbon negative country. Importantly, you are not just resting on past laurels but diversifying slowly but steadily into new spaces- into renewable energy such as solar and wind power; towards green transport; the ban on single-use plastic etc. These, among others, are examples of a country that is deeply respectful and committed to the environment. This is without doubt a tribute to the vision and leadership provided by the Druk Gyalpo of Bhutan, as most recently reiterated at the UN Secretary General’s High Level RoundTable on Climate Action by Lyonchhen Dr. Lotay Tshering.
As mentioned before, both countries have also been focusing on cross-cultural tourism with initiatives like digital payments making the process more convenient. Can you speak more about this and the different contours that need to be strengthened?
We share His Majesty’s vision for harnessing technology towards economic development and towards strengthening our partnership in new areas such as digital and emerging technologies, financial integration etc.
To this end, Prime Ministers Shri Narendra Modi and Dr. Lotay Tshering had launched the first phase of the Rupay Card in 2019. With this , Indian citizens have been facilitated in making payments with their Indian bank-issued debit cards, in Bhutan. A second phase to be launched in 2020 , will enable the use of Bhutanese bank-issued RuPay Cards across Points of Sale terminals in India. This will benefit all Bhutanese citizens who visit India for education, medical treatment, pilgrimage, work or tourism.
This cross border financial integration will further facilitate our warm people-to-people contacts and integrate furthermore the economies of our two countries.
Your father was an Army officer and your mother, a Professor at Delhi University. Do you credit your success to the environment you were brought up in? How important do you think are parents’ support to a child for achieving some feat?
I would agree with you that the early childhood years are critical in shaping future orientation. I was fortunate and blessed in having a vision and values through personal examples from my parents, that have stood me in good stead. I wish that for every child on this planet-that their potential is fully realised in safety and with opportunity.
You seem to have an eye for Bhutanese art and culture. You also have been promoting a film called Lunana recently. Tell us more about that.
It is always a privilege to serve as India’s Representative abroad and to get a rare insight each time into a country’s culture and way of being, so to speak. The more so, with a country like Bhutan, which offers such a rich and unique mosaic, in itself.
Speaking of “Lunana”, I was personally thrilled that this will be Bhutan’s official entry to the Oscars, an exquisite opportunity for the world to learn more about this singularly unique country.
Tell us about your previous experiences, of representing India at UNESCO and being a high commissioner to South Africa.
There are no two ways about this: it is an outstanding honour each time to bat for India. It was thus my privilege to serve both as Ambassador of India within the multilateral settings of UNESCO, Paris and as High Commissioner of India for South Africa, a country with which India has a shared history and importantly and going forward, an equally rich future.
If not Foreign Service, what else would you have pursued?
I am indeed fortunate to have lived my dream, I had frankly only envisaged this as a career.
What is the most important lesson you have learned in the 33 years of your glorious service?
A simple message: lead by example.
A message to the young Indians who want to represent their country globally.
I would unequivocally and unhesitatingly say this to my Indian friends that if you do wish to represent your country globally, the best way to do so is through the Indian Foreign Service, an opportunity and a challenge, like no other!
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